Buckner a consummate professional

Buckner a consummate professional

When Bill Buckner approached the mound at Fenway Park on Tuesday to throw out the honorary first pitch on Opening Day, the ovation was long and loud.

You could make the case that it carried all the way to the West Coast in that a number of former teammates fondly recalled a young Buckner, who broke into professional baseball with the Los Angeles Dodgers 40 years ago.

"I saw the picture of Billy throwing out the first pitch at Fenway, and the only thing I can say is that any tribute to him by the Boston Red Sox and their fans is long overdue," said Ron Cey, the former Dodgers third baseman.

Buckner and Cey both were drafted by the Dodgers in 1968, met for the first time on the Dodgers' flight to Florida for Spring Training in 1969 and have remained close friends since that time.

"Our families have been close through all of the years," Cey said, "and I know how tough it has been for Billy and his family to go through all of the abuse he took related to the play in the 1986 World Series."

"The play," of course, was the ground ball hit by the Mets' Mookie Wilson that rolled between Buckner's legs in Game 6, which enabled the Mets to complete a two-out, three-run rally and win the game en route to the World Series title.

"Yes, it was the World Series, and yes, it was a dramatic moment, but one play shouldn't define the legacy of a man who was a great player and a great hitter," said Cey. "Billy was a gritty player, a determined player and an emotional player, and this comes from someone who was his teammate in the Minor Leagues, with the Dodgers and then with the Chicago Cubs."

Buckner's ability was so apparent that he advanced to the Dodgers in just his second professional season in 1969 for one late-season at-bat, and then spent the next seven seasons with the Dodgers before being traded to the Cubs. He played seven-plus seasons with the Cubs before being dealt to the Red Sox in 1984.

Just how good of a hitter was Buckner? In collecting 2,715 career hits, he ranks 54th on the all-time list, and he had more hits than Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams (2,654), Cubs Hall of Famer Billy Williams (2,711) and Steve Garvey (2,599), his former teammate who ultimately took the first-base job with the Dodgers.

As the Dodgers celebrate their 50th anniversary in Los Angeles, a great deal of attention has been paid to the long-lasting infield of Garvey, Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Cey. It's now only a footnote, but it was Buckner who was the primary first baseman in 1973 with Lopes, Russell and Cey before he was moved to left field.

"Buckner was simply a great hitter," said Russell. "He was very determined and he wanted to play every day. He wanted to be the very best player he could be. The only time he was upset was when he wasn't in the starting lineup.

"There are so many stories about how intense Billy was as a player. I recall one time when he struck out against Phil Niekro for the final out of the inning and the catcher rolled the ball back toward the pitcher's mound. When Billy took the field to go to first base, he jumped up and down on the ball.

"There was a time when he flipped his helmet after making an out, and when he saw the helmet was headed in the direction of Walter Alston in our dugout, he went diving head-first to get the helmet. Another time, he tried to pull up the first-base bag after making an out on a close play. He always played with an all-out effort and with emotion."

Maury Wills was a veteran shortstop when the young infielders were starting out with the Dodgers in the early 1970s, and he recalled Buckner as a player who had great confidence and a great ability to hit.

"I've been together with Billy at some clinics in recent years, and he's always treated me with great respect, like I still was a veteran with the team," Wills said. "With all that he has accomplished, it made me feel good to see how Buckner treated me."

It is the respect that the Red Sox and their fans showed to Buckner that was one of the most heartwarming stories of the start of the 2008 baseball season.

It is a respect that was earned by Buckner over 22 seasons of playing hard and often playing hurt on two injured ankles while establishing himself as one of the leading hitters in the history of the game.

From a personal viewpoint, I well remember a game in April 1975 when Buckner suffered a severely sprained left ankle while sliding into second base in a game against the Giants. When I arrived at Dodger Stadium the next day, I looked out of a window in my office and saw Buckner trying to hobble around the warning track in the hope that he could loosen up the ankle to play that night.

It was a foolish thing to do, and I recall calling our trainers in the clubhouse to alert them to what was happening on the field, but it showed the determination and desire of Buckner.

Buckner moved slowly to the mound at Fenway on Tuesday, those ankles and legs still paying a price for two-plus decades of all-out play in the Major Leagues, and the cheers had to erase a lot of physical and emotional pain.

The Red Sox had a great season in winning the World Series in 2007. In my book, they had an even better Opening Day on Tuesday, when Bill Buckner received the tribute he deserved.

Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice-President and general manager. His book-Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue-was published by SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.